Zaha Hadid’s geometric fantasies

The work of the Baghdad-born architect goes on display in Madrid “All my paintings are related to architecture,” says the Pritzker Prize-winner

Zaha Hadid poses in the Ivory Press gallery, where her exhibition of paintings, sculptures and designs is currently on show.
Zaha Hadid poses in the Ivory Press gallery, where her exhibition of paintings, sculptures and designs is currently on show. BERNARDO PÉREZ

Rather than your average exhibition, it looks more like a setting for geometric fantasies. Zaha Hadid’s fluid, solid shapes are able to come together to create an all-enveloping atmosphere yet also break up into elements of surprising individuality.

The most famous female architect in the world, and the only woman to win the Pritzker Prize — the Nobel of architecture — is now showing some of her least-known work in Madrid. The unconventional paintings, sculptures and furniture on display seem to invite visitors to come up with new uses for them.

Hadid, who was born in Baghdad but works out of London, has erected norm-defying buildings that break with habitual concepts of space. Her close to 1,000 international projects include the Cardiff Bay Opera House, the Torre Espiral in Barcelona, the BMW Central Building in Leipzig and the Aquatics Centre for the London 2012 Olympics.

Fluid spaces


Often blinded by the success of her major projects and even by the most anecdotal elements of her brilliant career — the designs for Louis Vuitton — we tend to forget the lesser-known work of Zaha Hadid. The work that took place inside the studio, solitary and modest, heedless of the future, even during those early years when commissions were few and far between, as is often the case with any professional who is just getting started. It often happens with architects, and it is always fascinating to discover that territory of theirs that seems to function independently from the others, and which often lays out the groundwork for subsequent building work.

They are the drawings, the pencil notes, the most intimate part of their work. At this point, the architect has a lot in common with the artist, with someone whose work is not a means towards an end — the building, the scenography, the chair... — but an end in itself.

That is why it is so stimulating to turn one’s eyes to the paintings and drawings of this exceptional architect, the first woman to receive prizes that were the sole preserve of men for years. They show the least-known side of Hadid, the side that reveals a creator in search of the space she needs, rather than a world-renowned architect with emblematic buildings strewn across the globe. Hadid shows herself to be the stupendous draftswoman who imagined the world from within her studio, tracing lines on a piece of paper, preparing what would eventually become her fabulous fluid spaces, those geological complicities that are the signature of Hadid’s buildings and designs. This work is free of the conditions imposed by construction, and there are even some oil paintings that complement her universe in radical, unexpected ways. And therein lies the talent of every good architect, just like every good musician: in the ability to listen to the orchestra, to see the physical space in their mind before it occurs.

And so, suddenly, a certain prodigy is unveiled that lets us explore Zaha Hadid’s work beyond the buildings that rise proudly across the world. It is a game of research, of search, of scale that endorses the need to imagine spaces. Yes, to imagine them even if they never become a reality, even if they take a long time becoming a reality. This intimate side of Hadid puts the architect back in her place — her canvas — a place that has much in common with a testing ground.

If the future were not so devalued, the reality imposed by her undulating lines, broken by sudden cuts, could be described as belonging to that utopian time.

Her quest begins with the landscape and topography and then seeks the materials that best adapt to that flexibility. The same can be said for her designer objects, although the boundaries between design, painting and architecture are blurry at best. Actually, make that almost nonexistent.

“All my paintings are related to architecture,” says Hadid. “At the time they were something like very elaborate sketches or representations of each project. I wanted to make presentations that would be outside the norm, more conceptual, although I don’t think they make a lot of sense on their own.”

But she is wrong. Even with no knowledge of their genesis or function, people who view the paintings on display feel that they are in the presence of a work of art. Her work evokes the audacity of suprematism or Russian constructivism from the early 20th century, and its colorfulness underscores qualities that are not readily evident.

There are three low walls against which a few small, white towers are lining up. Some are formal variations of the others. They are delicate sculptures, capricious geometric forms modeled out of nylon by a 3D materials printer.

“These were, in principle, two-dimensional drawings that were manipulated,” she explains, adding that today’s technological advances cannot replace creativity.

“There is a widespread misunderstanding to the effect that sometimes you can create a design by manipulating geometry, but you cannot ask the computer to make the design by itself. The most interesting thing right now is this passage into shape, and the connection between an idea projected on a great scale. Before this it could also be done, but it took a lot longer.”

“The see-through table — Liquid Glacial Table — was also made from a 3D model, but the plexiglass is molded into those shapes,” she continues. “It’s like painting in three dimensions; I find it very stimulating. You come up with a small model that can turn into a larger one and even into a building. We still haven’t achieved the kind of technology that allows us to make an entire building from a model, but we can already work on these expanded versions of details and façade materials, in terms of the structure.”

Indeed, every question about her designs ends up with an explanation about their connection with architecture and city planning.

Some pieces climb the walls and occupy part of the ceiling, such as Kartal Pendik Masterplan. “Masterplans are analyses of a city’s growth potential, of where the concentrations should be. What I find interesting is that the graphic representation, in this case, eventually became the genesis of a building,” says the Iraqi-British architect.

She points at a wall displaying her masterplan for Madrid. They are paintings she made in the 1990s proposing a certain type of development in the capital, and which she has now completed with a few acrylic images of Paseo de la Castellana and other parts of the city.

“There is an analysis of Madrid based on the historical center and suburban growth. We traced a kind of corridor to the airport and new areas of development. What’s interesting about this project is the link between landscape and object, a repertoire that emerges from the landscape ideas.”

Other objects in the show look like wall sculptures but are more than that. “The stalactites and the wall piece were made for a home in California. They are small, expanded reliefs, made in such a way that you can sit on them. The idea is that you can make an artwork in an architectural way and at the same time make it a piece of furniture.”

Every piece has a story behind it, and only Hadid can tell it.

Zaha Hadid. Beyond Boundaries. Art and Design. At the Ivory Press Gallery, C/ Comandante Zorita, 48, Madrid. www.ivorypress.com

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